LAMAR HANKINS | POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY | ‘Woke’ attacks promote inequality and injustice

Not to be ‘woke’ is to willfully ignore reality.

Rip Van Winkle by Phil Venditti / Flickr / Creative Commons.

By Lamar Hankins | The Rag Blog | April 13, 2023

Right-wingers, the emotionally damaged, and “lazy ideologues” who hurl being “woke,” like an epithet studded with sharp spikes to wound the object of their disdain, appear not to appreciate the word’s context or meaning.

The writer Bijan C. Bayne recently wrote in a WAPO essay that “wokeness” was originally used to explain an awareness that developed among “U.S. Blacks who had been mentally conditioned into philosophical slumber by centuries of oppression, intimidation, miseducation and social frustration.”  He cited 1930s usage of the concept by the Nation of Islam and Marcus Garvey, followed by Huddie Ledbetter (Black people “best stay woke, keep their eyes open”–1938), Malcolm X, and others later, including by Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1965 commencement address at Oberlin College in which he said: “There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution… The great challenge facing every individual graduating today is to remain awake.”

NYT columnist David Brooks, in 2017, applied the term broadly, out of its original context, with an unjustified mischaracterization: “To be woke is to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”  

But Brooks is only half right.  Radical awareness and paranoia are not necessary to be “woke.”  In fact, most people who become aware of this nation’s governmental, economic, and social history through study, as well as personal experience, are neither radical nor paranoid.  They become aware of injustice and inequality and begin to act in accord with these understandings.

King explained in 1968 that too many Americans, especially those in churches, were sleeping through a time on the verge of transformation. He called for all Americans to wake up to the injustice all around them and demand change.  And this change he spoke of was not limited to the U.S.: 

“We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight… I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia.”

The economic implications of King’s vision of a world without poverty can stimulate many people who were previously unwilling to assess the world through open eyes, or who were unable to do so because of their political views or personal proclivities, to see the world differently.  When such an awakening occurs, a person may never be sanguine about the status quo again.

Sources of inequality

Of course, to understand where we are, we must understand from where we came.  Our founders, who were brilliant in many ways, endowed us with a dump truck of problems.  They were no doubt influenced by the ideas of Aristotle, who, in his Politics, favored the exclusion of full participation in our civic life to women (whom Aristotle viewed as inherently irrational), slaves (whom Aristotle describes as lacking a deliberative faculty), those without property, some indigenous groups, and those considered aliens.  Many such ideas that informed the foundations of our government, and our economic and social institutions, have helped create disastrous consequences over two centuries later.

It is no wonder that women are today paid barely over three-quarters of what a man doing comparable work is paid.  

It is no wonder that Black families have accumulated wealth at minuscule levels compared to white families. (In 2019 the median white household held $188,200 in wealth — 7.8 times that of the typical Black household at $24,100. Levels of average wealth, skewed by households with the greatest amounts of wealth, are higher: white households reported average wealth of $983,400, which is nearly seven times that of Black households at $142,500.)  A major part of household wealth is owning a home, but Blacks have faced discrimination in the housing/real estate market throughout most of our history.

It is no wonder that when the GI Bill was passed for the benefit of  World War II veterans, powerful senators made sure that it was administered through the states, assuring that the one million Negroes who fought in that war were discriminated against in access to its benefits.  Only 2% of the WW II veterans who received VA-backed housing loans were Black.

It is no wonder that Jim Crow laws, discrimination in public school education, voting suppression, unjustified incarceration rates for Blacks, and other forms of inequality directed toward Blacks have led to lower levels of advancement for them in the U.S.

It is no wonder that about 30% of descendants from indigenous populations live in poverty, as contrasted with an average of 15% for all other groups.

It is no wonder that non-citizens (immigrants) in the U.S. labor force work at some of the lowest-paid and lowest-benefits jobs.  

It is no wonder that farm workers make about half of the average salary in the U.S. of about $1,028 per week; farm workers (often minorities) make an average of $544 per week.

These conditions are not accidental.  They are a result of who controls the government and the economy.  In the U.S., control lies largely with financial institutions, corporations, and politicians funded by them.  But it is possible to overcome greedy, malevolent forces, by organizing against them and for the benefit of everyone else — a formidable task that requires both awareness (“wokeness”) and constant diligence.

We don’t have to be Christian, or even religious, to appreciate the message in the story of the good Samaritan.  It asks the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Martin Luther King answered that question as I do: “My neighbor is the person in need.”  The financial institutions and corporations, along with the politicians who do their bidding, seldom recognize these neighbors.  Their greed often blocks them from even seeing such neighbors.

The nature of being ‘woke

Being “woke” is not sinister or alarming or menacing or doctrinaire or self-loathing (the term Nikki Haley used in her announcement speech for the Republican presidential nomination).  In fact, being woke-phobic is far more dangerous.  Take the transgender issue as an example.  NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote recently that “Laws are being passed all over the country targeting trans people, particularly trans kids, and the right’s language has turned openly eliminationist. (One speaker at CPAC said, ‘Transgenderism must be eradicated.’)”

While there are some people who deny that transgenderism actually exists, such people seem to be out of touch with reality.  I have known transgender people for nearly 50 years.  Not only are they real, but they deserve to be left alone unless they are hurting other people.  But the contrary is actually true; other people are seeking to do harm to transgender people.  To acknowledge transgenderism is to acknowledge the world as it exists, not as one would prefer it to be.  But anti-woke people want to control everything about our lives, including our identities.

Being “woke” is an essential quality for anyone who cares about others and knows who one’s neighbor is.  Not to be “woke” is to willfully ignore reality in order to fit in to the expectations of the powerful forces that largely control the U.S.  Being “woke” is essential for a just and humane society.  But opposing wokeness is nothing new.

The woke-phobic meme that has entered our culture, and especially our politics, is a new version of the anti-politically correct meme, which has been a part of our lives for several decades.  These memes often involve what words we use to refer to people from socially recognized groups.  They include those of African descent in this country, people from populations that were indigenous to the North American continent when Europeans “discovered” it, and people who grow up speaking or hearing Spanish spoken in their homes.  Since it is usually impossible to know a person’s preferred classification, I often don’t know how to best refer to their group.  If I don’t know someone’s preference, I try to be as inclusive as possible.

Wokeness, pronouns, triggering, and name-calling

I don’t mean to suggest that I agree with every concern someone voices.  I look at concerns that are raised and try to determine if they are matters that affect equality and justice.  It is not always easy to tell.  

At one time, I thought the use of pronouns does not automatically turn on those issues.  After becoming better educated about what it is like to be trans in this culture, I am persuaded that pronouns can be a human rights issue that concerns equality and justice.  If this doesn’t ring true to you, consider the rates of suicide and attempted suicide among LGBTQ+ young people and their actual experiences (  Using the pronoun that another person favors and identifies with, if one knows it, is just common courtesy, like calling a woman by her title of preference, such as Mrs., Miss, or Ms., or by occupational titles, such as Rev. or Dr.

The issue of trigger words or triggering events also concerns me.  Trigger words do not fit neatly into the framework of inequality and injustice.  It is impossible to have a political, social, or academic discussion that will not concern topics that create bad memories or emotional reactions for some people.  While I may not know what will trigger someone in any formal discussion or casual conversation, when I do know, I can try to be sensitive to that circumstance.  When someone shows me a picture that is horrifying to me, it is my responsibility to look away and ask them to not show that kind of picture to me.  

However, if someone is taking a required biology course that includes dissecting a frog and later identifying various parts of the frog — requirements that trigger revulsion in some people — efforts to resolve this revulsion may need to be explored, if such a person has an uncontrollable physiological response that is outside the norm.  Dr. Martin Ellingham’s revulsion to blood in the British comedy Doc Martin comes to mind.

One area involving triggering that is difficult to resolve concerns the use of words that bother some people.  My wife may object to certain coarse words I use on occasion.  If I have time to think about the words, I can avoid them, but that doesn’t always work.  Derogatory words used in a book or song may be offensive, but they need to be acknowledged in order to have a discussion about the book or song.  Sometimes, references to the word can be used in place of the word, such as the “n” word (for nigger), or the “c” word (for cunt), or the “b” word (for bitch).  

Language doesn’t bother me in an academic or serious discussion.  But name-calling to intentionally offend someone is another matter that often involves being aware that it contributes to inequality or injustice.  In fact, there is some evidence that opposing being woke is a slap at Blacks from whose cultural experience the word is derived.  It is another way to be subtly racist without acknowledging one’s racism.


I may disagree with someone about their awareness of the world around them, or their lack of such awareness.  But woke-hatred, as proffered by the right wing in this country, is an ideology that is the opposite of what its proponents claim.  It is an ideology that is itself sinister, alarming, menacing, phobic, and threatening toward those who care about others.  It is virulent, mean, malignant, and hostile, intended to destroy being kind, understanding, compassionate, tolerant, thoughtful, truthful, and humane.

After seeing its many forms and considering its advocates, I remain confused by woke-hatred.  Why do so many people, some I used to know as kind and generous-spirited, become haters of wokeness and those they accuse of being woke?  Perhaps it is because of the acrimonious presidency of Donald Trump, which opened the floodgates to a nastiness I have experienced only in race relations or attitudes toward homosexuality in my lifetime.  Perhaps it is the anonymity ushered in by the internet that has allowed people to find pockets of venom deep in their beings and express it without consequence.  Perhaps that same internet has made possible a way for people to find aid and comfort from others who are like-minded, to avoid explaining themselves to others.  Perhaps woke-hatred is merely a right-wing meme used to discourage people from examining the truth about the United States, its history, politics, and culture.

This last thought resonates more with me than the others.  The three concerns that have most shaped my nearly eight decades of life — civil rights, the War in Vietnam, and poverty — developed only because I opened my eyes and saw what was there to be seen.  

There will always be people who want us to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room.  They will hate those who choose to point out that elephant.  While I can’t be sure why woke-hatred developed, I know that it is important to the common good to try to be sensitive to and aware of the world around us in order to be better people than we might otherwise be, and help make the world a better place for everyone.  

Being woke doesn’t determine what, if anything, a person might do.  There may be conservative, liberal, moderate, libertarian, or fascist ways to deal with inequality and injustice, as well as refusing to deal with such problems at all.

I know that I would rather be aware than ignorant and uncaring — two choices that we all have.  If a person uses “woke” in some other context than to mean awareness of inequality and injustice, that person has an obligation to explain what they mean.  Otherwise, reasonable discourse is impossible and we will continue to live in an “Alice in Wonderland” world, where people (like Humpty Dumpty) assign meaning to their words in a reckless, irresponsible, harmful, and autocratic fashion.

To be “woke” is to be the “Buddha in the woodpile” that Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote that we needed in Waco to prevent the Branch Davidian conflagration.  After all, Buddha means  “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One.”  Humankind needs more such people.

[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas City Attorney, has a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Houston. Hankins is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as an Associate Exit Guide and contributor to the Good Death Society Blog.

Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Lamar.

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2 Responses to LAMAR HANKINS | POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY | ‘Woke’ attacks promote inequality and injustice

  1. David McIntosh says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. I appreciated learning how, and by whom, “woke” was used as far back as the 1930s. It may be unhumble to say, but I think I’m woke-ish according to how they meant it, and I aspire to be more so. After having seen too many clips of frantic anti-wokers lately, I feel I’ve been brought back to earth.

  2. Allen Young says:

    I believe Lamar Harkins is well-intended in his criticism of the anti-woke campaign by right-wingers, and I am also glad he expressed some reservations. As for me, I’m uncomfortable with “woke” though certainly not from a right-wing perspective. I just think “woke” is not necessary when we already have a very good word — “aware.” The use of “woke” often seems to me to be cult-like, and people embrace the wokeness in themselves with a fervor that I find troublesome. What if I don’t embrace every example of “micro-aggression,” or don’t support the idea that a trigger warning needs to be placed on every essay or book with violence in it? What if I’m sympathetic to the intelligent, liberal, devoted professor I know who was called into the dean’s office and humiliated because he “misgendered” a student? I’m not anti-woke, but I think we can do without it in the extreme way it is presenting itself in the public arena. It can do more harm than good.

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